On the day after what might be remembered as the most transformative draft in recent franchise history, Brian Flores was out for a walk in his Florida neighborhood, preparing for the start of the Miami Dolphins' offseason program. He had to talk over chirping birds, a rare idyllic-sounding moment in an unsettling spring.
Little about the past few months has been normal in the NFL, least of all for the Dolphins. Theirs was a draft anticipated for a year, as the roster turned over and the draft picks accumulated. The hope is that this prospect haul will be viewed as a pivotal moment in the effort to finally retire years of mediocrity and piecemeal fixes in favor of a well-constructed rebuild led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick. The death Monday of the only coach to have sustained success in Miami, NFL legend Don Shula, whose last season was in 1995, provided a reminder of how long the franchise has been scuffling. While the draft is always a beacon of optimism, that was especially the case for Miami in last month's edition, as the Dolphins made 11 picks, including six in the top 70. Still, the 2020 draft was conducted, like everything else in the NFL for now, in makeshift workspaces around the country, amid the kids and the dogs and the uncertainty of what more is to come as many around the world continue to stay away from public spaces in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of familiarity everyone is feeling with the altered landscape is multiplied in Miami, where many new faces -- all those draftees, plus free agents like Byron Jones, Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy -- will pop up in so many Zoom boxes.
It has been an adjustment for a famously tightly-wound league, but Flores is among those who has loved working from home. He's enjoyed his children busting into his office to ask a question or sing him a song, and they loved the cameras from the draft -- placed in the homes of coaches and general managers throughout the league -- so much that they were disappointed when it was over. Like many, Flores had always had good intentions to get home for dinner, and he thinks that the weeks of working from home may cause some coaches and GMs to reevaluate whether they have to be at the office quite so late.
Flores is from New York, which has been hit especially hard during the pandemic, and he told reporters after the draft that COVID-19 had claimed two of his mentors from his old neighborhood. When he talks to family members on the phone, he implores them to order in rather than leave their homes.
Amid that backdrop, Flores is now pulling together -- virtually -- a substantially changed team. The Dolphins began their offseason program last week, and Flores knows there will probably be glitches along the way, although he ran mocks of the video meetings coaches would have with players, to make sure everybody was comfortable with the technology. Flores preaches a mantra of adaptability -- "In-game, you have to adapt and adjust and be flexible, so here we are in a situation where things are different and we have to adjust," he says -- and he had already amended his first-day message to his team, which was further sanitized for the benefit of a reporter.
"I'm going to tell them I'm excited to see them, even on a Zoom call," Flores said before the program began. "That's a good feeling, even over a Zoom call. They should be excited to see each other. We've got a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but this is the first step to laying the foundation for what could be a good start to the 2020 season. We just want to get off to a good start."
Whenever the 2020 teams are on the field again, the Dolphins will almost certainly be one of the most compelling, accompanied by rising expectations after the overachievement of a 5-11 season. It was one of 2019's best coaching jobs, considering the roster was being stripped of some of its top-level talent while the season played out. It begs the obvious question: How excited is Flores, heading into his second year, to finally have his guys, even if he can't see them in person?
"Those were my guys a year ago, too," he says. "I'm passionate about coaching. Anytime I get to get out there, to help somebody with a technique, a fundamental, I'm in my happy place. Every year is a new group. Every year is a little bit different team. I'm always excited when it comes to coaching football, mentoring guys and them becoming better people."
Still, the Dolphins reshaped their defense in free agency and took what they hope will be the franchise quarterback in the draft, along with a raft of linemen and defensive backs. It appears likely that the first time Dolphins coaches will be able to see Tagovailoa -- and to gauge his readiness following surgery to correct a dislocated hip suffered last November -- will be when training camps open, hopefully, late in July. In the meantime, Flores has spent time thinking about different ways to communicate and build relationships with players when they cannot be together.
"I guess I could get frustrated," Flores says of not having his team in front of him. "But really, what does that do? That would be a waste of energy. I try to direct my energy to things I can control. Right now, it's how can I make these meetings as good as they can be, so guys can get as much information, and can make as many improvements as we can, given the circumstances? I'm not going to dwell on what it could be. Here are the cards we've been dealt, and let's try to play this the best we can. All of it is new. All of it is not ideal. We wish as coaches we had total control over where they're going to lift, what they'll do for a run. It's uncomfortable. Sometimes you've got to get comfortable being uncomfortable. That's part of the game."
Flores has already started thinking about training camp and what adjustments might be necessary, depending on the virus-related timeline. For now, the NFL expects training camps to open on time, but Flores is thinking through contingencies. He has an idea on the three or four things the team has to accomplish if training camp is shortened and how he will adjust the schedule if camps open late.
It is conventional wisdom that, much like after the 2011 lockout, the disruption in offseason work will probably yield sloppier-than-usual play early in the season. Flores was not happy to even hear that suggestion. The Dolphins will be coached on fundamentals and technique -- critical for young players -- and Flores emphasized the need for players to get in condition, after an offseason in which many players may not have access to training facilities or even neighborhood gyms.
"It's never my expectation that football is going to look sloppy," he said. "Dante Scarnecchia (the former Patriots offensive line coach, with whom Flores worked in New England) walks out there every day and says, 'Today, I'm going to coach me some well-played ball.' And then he finishes it off after five seconds. 'Or so we hope.' "
Flores isn't paying any attention to the increased expectations for the Dolphins that come with Tagovailoa's arrival. His hope for the rookie quarterback is that he takes things slowly, learning the playbook and building relationships with his new teammates while continuing his physical rehab. Miami's doctors have not yet seen Tagovailoa, so the team is unable to offer any kind of timeline for his availability. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick remains with the Dolphins, and given the combination of Tagovailoa's recovery and the likelihood of reduced offseason work, there is an argument to be made that Tagovailoa should have a redshirt season.
In the run-up to the draft, though, Tagovailoa sought to show teams that he was healthy and could play if a team needed him. There will be a balancing act for the Dolphins to navigate. Their brain trust has taken a long-term view of the rebuilding, but a poor start to the season with Fitzpatrick would undoubtedly lead to public calls for Tagovailoa's debut.
It will be Flores' responsibility to manage Tagovailoa and a transformed team. The Dolphins had to wait during a long, difficult year to get to this point, where their football future as a franchise is bright. Given the circumstances, their wait to put a new team on the field will be longer. Flores doesn't think about whether he will have to hold Tagovailoa back for his health. But the pent-up anticipation for the return to normal -- not just for the Dolphins, but for everybody -- will require some adjustment.
"I'm a baby-step guy," Flores said. "I'm never going to stop a player from studying the playbook or watching film. I'm not pulling the reins back on that. Given the situation now, we're not in a situation where we're practicing. Don't worry about pulling back the reins.
"I think we'll have to pull back the reins on a lot of guys. I don't think this is a Tua conversation. This is every group, and not just the Miami Dolphins, it's every team. Relationships are big, and everybody wants to be part of a team. When you don't have that, if the team is part of your family, your friends, football, when you don't have it -- this pandemic where everybody has to stay away from each other -- as a society, we need relationships. And once we get that opportunity, we'll be holding everybody back."